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Environmentalists want another veto from Dayton

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Environmentalists want Dayton to veto an agriculture and environment bill that they say would delay water quality rules, hurt bees and go easy on polluters.
Judy Griesedieck | For MPR News

As Gov. Mark Dayton prepares to veto a school funding bill before the Legislature adjourns tonight, Minnesota's environmental groups are asking him to target another budget bill.

  Environmentalists want Dayton to reject a spending bill for agriculture and the environment — even though it includes language on buffers to protect the state's waterways. Buffers have been one of Dayton's top priorities this session.  

The list of objections from environmental groups is long, and it includes complaints about both policy and spending — including a provision that uses money raised by Minnesota's Legacy Amendment to pay for environmental measures.

  One of the biggest objections is to a provision that would eliminate the citizens' board that oversees some decisions at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The language stems from a controversial decision the board made last year over a proposed dairy operation.

  Environmental groups also object to money being transferred out of a fund designed to clean up old landfills in the future and to new policies they say would delay water quality rules, hurt bees and go easy on polluters.

  "It's really an atrocious environmental bill, especially in a year when we have a lot of money," said Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, which represents a coalition of groups. "It makes dramatic cuts to the environment and natural resources and has a lot of really bad policy."  

The Republican-led Minnesota House debated and passed the bill on an 83-50 vote, with most Democrats voting against it. The abolition of the MPCA Citizens Board was one of several reasons some DFLers said they opposed it. They argued the board provides an additional check on a regulatory agency.

  "Eliminating this board is a radical step," said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis. "It shouldn't be in this bill."

  State Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, defended the provision. He said the concept was outdated.

  "Years ago we used to have citizen boards on a number of different agencies," he said. "It was very much needed when first formed in the late 1960s and '70s. I think the need for that has moved along as the scientists and qualified folks at the MPCA do their work."  

McNamara said he hopes the governor will sign the bill even if he doesn't like every provision.

  The bill does include new language on buffers. Legislative leaders came up with a proposal over the weekend that wouldn't have taken effect for another five or more years. The latest version would require buffers on public waters by late 2017 and on drainage ditches by late 2018.

  Buffers between cropland and public waters would have to be a minimum of 30 feet wide and an average of 50 feet wide. For ditches, buffers would have to be 16.5 feet wide.

  State Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, met with Dayton administration officials to come up with language that both farm groups and environmental groups could support.

  With that buffer initiative included, Torkelson said, the bill is a good one.

  "I'm really hopeful that the governor will sign the bill," he said. "I believe that when you look at the whole package, there are pluses and minuses for all of us, but the overall impact of this bill I think will be a cleaner environment and a system that works a little better."

  Officials with the Nature Conservancy applauded the buffer language, calling it "the most significant advancement in Minnesota water policy" since 1991. Rich Biske, the group's director of freshwater habitat conservation, said the buffers will reduce nutrients and sediment in Minnesota's lakes and rivers.

  "We hope other states in the Midwest take notice, and take similar action to protect their rivers, lakes and streams," he said in a written statement.

  But other groups expressed doubts.

  Trevor Russell, water program director of Friends of the Mississippi River, said a 16.5-foot buffer on a drainage ditch could hold a bank in place but might not do enough to filter out farm runoff. He said another problem with the compromise language is the funding plan.

  Under the bill, lawmakers would distribute Legacy Amendment money to counties to help them implement buffers. But Russell said the buffer policy deserves general fund money, not Legacy Amendment dollars.

  "It really violates the recommendations of the Clean Water Council, which they don't like to do, and strips $22 million out of other programs to fund this instead of using any of our $1.9 billion surplus to do this," he said.

  Dayton hasn't said whether he'll sign the bill, but he's already promised to veto the education spending bill.

  If the governor decides to add the environment bill to the veto list, it could give lawmakers more time to send him something he can sign.

MPR News reporter Tom Scheck contributed to this story.